Salvo 02.09.2023 7 minutes

Identity Alchemy

Man carrying large rocks on his back

Wokeism stamps out the very idea of individual character formation.  

It would be easy for French actress and author Rachel Khan to embrace the identity that wokeism ascribes to people based on race, gender, and ethnicity. Her mother was a white Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor living in France. Her father was a black Gambian university teacher who grew up under British colonial rule. According to woke identity politics, this makes her systematically oppressed in at least four different ways.

But Khan rejects identity politics and intersectionality, the woke scheme of mapping the intersection of multiple forms of systematic oppression in a single person. In the October 2021 Tocqueville Conversations panel “The Volcano of Identity,” she said intersectionality reduces everyone to a “slave to a color,” such that “the color of the skin erases everything—everything underlying, removes your signature. Your signature is much more human than your ‘identity.’ Your signature is your hallmark: the way you speak, the way you think, the way you laugh—particularly the way you laugh—and the way you move. It tells you more about yourself. Thanks to the signature, you’re in contact with the subjectivity of the individual, and not in contact with this nebulous [identity] group.” In the French newspaper Le Figaro, Khan argued that identity politics and intersectionality are “a colonization of the spirit,” “a way of removing recognition of [one’s] individual distinguished history.”

Similarly, political theorist Joshua Mitchell observes that identity politics and intersectionality are not about revealing the kind of person one is, what we normally think of as one’s identity. In his pathbreaking 2020 book American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Times, Mitchell says identity politics is about ascribing an identity to a person within a preconceived power struggle between a guilty oppressor group and an innocent victim group. This ascription is based entirely on outward group markers like race and gender, not the character that lies inside us. Put differently, woke identity is based on stamps, labels imposed on us by nature or society, whereas the signatures Khan describes are authored by individuals.

But like medieval alchemists who claimed to be able to extract gold from lead, woke identity politics purports to extract signatures from stamps. Through the alchemy of intersectionality, wokeism uses a collection of an individual’s stamps to produce a pseudo-signature: an “intersectionality score.” It purports to tally up the balance of a person’s “levels of systemic oppression,” the product of one’s various oppressor and oppressed identities, without regard for one’s actual involvement in any real cases involving oppression.

Ironically, the inventor of the term intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw, has called out wokeism for using the concept of intersectionality for purposes for which it was never intended. Crenshaw is a legal scholar and co-founder of Critical Race Theory (CRT). She says she originally posited intersectionality as the idea that different forms of discrimination can sometimes overlap or intersect. For example, in certain situations, someone applying for a job could be the victim of both racism and sexism simultaneously. This makes sense.

But a distorted woke use of intersectionality to mean identity—an individual’s signature—has become widespread. For example, one woke professor went so far as to write that intersectionality is “all of who I am.” Woke intersectionality-as-identity uses intersectionality scores as an oppression accounting system, an idea taught even to students in elementary and secondary schools. For young adolescents naturally developing their identities, intersectionality scores are a fool’s gold that can have an insidious allure. In purporting to quantify the way group identities come together in an individual, an intersectionality score offers the appearance of having captured an individual’s uniqueness, their signature.

But in fact, intersectionality scores say nothing at all about an individual’s signature. As calculations based on stamps, they are simply an arithmetic mishmash of various outward group markers shared by millions. Thus, intersectionality-as-signature is forgery, and woke schools are teaching kids to forge their identities. Crenshaw herself publicly repudiated the misuse of intersectionality as identity in her keynote speech at the 2016 Women of the World Festival:

[CRT advocates] often mistakenly think that intersectionality is only about multiple identities. I’ve got three, you’ve got six, the identity question goes on and on. Some colleagues in Germany undertook to count how many intersections there are. At last count there were like seventeen or something, it was an attempt to map them all. That’s not, at least, my articulation of intersectionality. Intersectionality is not primarily about identity. It’s about how structures make certain identities the consequence of and the vehicle for vulnerability. So if you want to know how many intersections matter, you’ve got to look at the context. What’s happening? What kind of discrimination is going on? What are the policies? What are the institutional structures that play a role in contributing to the exclusion of some people and not others?

By the logic Crenshaw outlines here, discrimination is always specific to a case. And demonstrating discrimination requires evidence from that case. Yet woke intersectionality scores are not based on any cases or case-based evidence at all. Cases cannot be punched into an intersectionality score calculator; it only recognizes stamps like race, gender, income, religion, and so on. By Crenshaw’s logic, intersectionality scores are completely irrelevant to the concept of intersectionality that she invented. They are meaningless numbers. “Some people look to intersectionality as a grand theory of everything, but that’s not my intention,” Crenshaw clarified in an interview with Columbia Law School.

But this has not stopped educators from trying to convince students that their intersectionality is their identity. And identity amnesia sets in when people fall under this delusion and forget their true signatures. But in fact, signatures cannot be ascribed by anyone—not by woke alchemy nor even by oneself. A unique identity is not something anyone can declare; it is a byproduct of what one does. One discovers one’s own identity through living, engaging in society through words, actions, and choices, all of which develop character. At a 2021 Intercollegiate Studies Institute conference, Mitchell articulated how another French thinker—Alexis de Tocqueville—sheds light on how identity politics engages in misguided self-stamping rather than self-discovery:

[Identity politics] presupposes that we can know who we are in advance of encountering another person. “I am this, you must understand me, and you must respect me.” The Tocquevillian view is we don’t yet know fully who we are. We only discover who we are through our dealings with one another in face-to-face associations. Our understanding of ourself and our understanding of other people is always exceeded in that encounter. And the very sick thing about identity politics is it wants to preclude that engagement and say “I am this. I don’t need you to confirm or disconfirm who I am.”

Mitchell here observes how identity politics univocally declares identities rather than recognizing how they develop through mutual discovery in communities. Yet in this, wokeism contradicts its own fundamental premise that identities are “socially constructed.” What could be less socially constructed than declaring one’s own identity and demanding that the world conform?

As Mitchell alludes to, Tocqueville wondered at the ways in which Americans authored new signatures through voluntary associations. He found this so different from his native France, where identities were stamped on citizens by leftover social habits of aristocratic thinking, even after democratic government had officially replaced aristocracy. Tocqueville observed that the stamps of class and rank imposed by the aristocratic hierarchy, which designated one’s station in life from birth, lingered in France as “incoherent opinions…here and there to be met with in society, like those fragments of broken chains that one sometimes sees still dangling from the vaults of an old building, but no longer supporting anything.”

Like the aristocratic mindset Tocqueville found still lingering in democratic France, woke intersectionality alchemy stamps identities on citizens while ignoring their signatures. It only works when citizens develop identity amnesia, forgetting the signatures they author in marriages, families, friendships, teams, town hall meetings, arts groups, fan clubs, charities, civic associations, parent-teacher associations, and all the other forms of association. Observing these myriad ways in which citizens author signatures every day is a potent cure for identity amnesia. As Khan put it, “Your signature is your hallmark,” not your stamps. Identity alchemy fails when we remember this truth.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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